The exchange of products not only occurs between Indigenous communities in Ecuador, but also between the Coast and the Sierra. This is a custom that survives the years and modernity. March is the time of Sisariy Pacha, a term that in Kichwa (a language that includes all Quechua varieties of Ecuador and Colombia, and Peru) means flowering time, when the entire landscape is green. In the plains, the tuktu (corn flower) gives life to its plants. During this season, some families from the Kichwa communities of Cotacachi used to exchange their tender products from the field for those harvested in the coastal area of the country.
The town of Cotacachi belongs to Imbabura province, located 97 kilometers from Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, and embedded in the middle of the Andes, at a height of 2,418 meters above sea level. It has 40,036 inhabitants, who according to the ethnic identification of the country are grouped into mestizos — the majority —, with 53.53%, followed by the Indigenous, with 40.55% and Afro-Ecuadorians, with 1.66%, according to the 2010 Population and Housing Census.
La Calera is one of the communities within Cotacachi, well known for its ancestral Andean activities and practices that it still preserves, such as the ranti ranti. This is one of the oldest ways of exchanging products between the different communities, families and areas of the country. It is an initiative in which those who live in the Andean zone exchange their production for that of Manabí, Los Ríos, Esmeraldas, and Pichincha (Puerto Quito). They exchange potatoes for cassava, corn for bananas, oranges for beans, among others. That is to say, a community in which barter not only survives, but is fully accepted.
The objective is to complement and vary the diet. To learn more about this community practice, we spoke with Wayra Calapi, originally from La Calera. Wayra is a 50-year-old Kichwa man, father, musician and recognized community sage, for his leadership in initiatives to preserve traditions and customs of the Kichwa people. He is part of the Jatarishun association, which is dedicated to agroecological production based on native seeds and tourism promotion. Wayra leads the exchange of products and has organized community fairs.
"Here we plant for family consumption," he says. There are those who migrate to nearby cities, such as Quito, Ibarra and Otavalo, to find work; others are workers. Women, in addition to household chores, are dedicated to agriculture, to selling their labor; they are artisans. With the Covid-19 pandemic, some activities were interrupted and those who worked in the cities had to return to their community.
For this reason, "we must strengthen agriculture and recognize the central place that the farmer has to produce and provide food," says Cristian Echeverría, agronomist and coordinator of Social Participation of the Municipality of Cotacachi.
Likewise, the exchange on which the ranti ranti is based, and which has remained in force among several families in La Calera, helped to achieve food sovereignty and security, because people had access to the foods they liked, they were varied and they ate them fresh.
People from surrounding communities also participate in the ranti ranti of La Calera. The exchange of goods went from intra-community to exchanges between communities and different ethnic groups, on a broader scale, which now includes towns on the Ecuadorian coast, says Wayra. There are people from Puerto Quito, Yaruquí, Cangahua, El Quinche, Esmeraldas, Montalvo, Manabí, who have joined.
“This reciprocal activity makes it possible to exchange products without the need for money. Varied foods are acquired from cold and warm areas, becoming an alternative life for the communities. This is how many families came together to help each other in times of crisis and confinement, as it was at the beginning of the pandemic,” says Wayra.
Ranti ranti in Kichwa means reciprocity, in correspondence, and is one of the important principles in the Andean worldview. This act does not remain just a simple exchange; culturally it is kawsay (life) that is being cared for and guarantees food sovereignty. In this sense, reciprocity would become a cosmic and universal principle of "justice", of an ethical balance, as Estermann, J., points out in the book Andean Philosophy.
According to Rosa Murillo, agroeconomist and promoter of the Social and Solidarity Economy Movement of Ecuador (Messe) in the northern zone, bartering is an ancestral cultural manifestation, which is based on the principles of Andean thought that aims to "promote complementarity, reciprocity , distribution, dialogue of knowledge, autonomy, interculturality and revitalize culture”. Murillo adds that, in this practice of exchanging products, knowledge, and/or services for others that are needed, the value of money is not the mediator and the only value is the need of the family .
The president of the La Calera community, Luis Villagómez, tells in the Kichwa language that the ranti ranti is also practiced with other communities and that the Jatarishun organization, from La Calera, has for years led fairs to exchange corn and other products. In these exchanges, people do not set the price or quantity, the exchange is based on the needs of the families and he adds: “For as long as I can remember, reciprocity has been practiced between families and neighbors. In this rural community, everyone sows, they have their orchards and the harvest, a part is for family sustenance and the rest to change with other products”.
“Although the ranti ranti has been present in this area and has been practiced at a family and local level, the exchange with other provinces and areas of the country is an initiative led by Wayra Calapi. We, as a council, consider it to be a beneficial activity. We believe that it helps the community to strengthen solidarity”, says the president of La Calera.
In relation to intercommunity exchange, Wayra recounts one of his experiences with the Puruhua Kichwa people, in Alausí, Chimborazo, located 300 km from Cotacachi. When he traveled to that town to give a talk on identity and community economy, as a thank you they gave him a large quantity of products: potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, chamomile, nettle, etc.
He remembers with emotion that he did not expect to be given so much food: "Three trucks were filled with the agricultural products that they gave me," he exclaims, still enthusiastic. Since he had contacts in Sabalito, Esmeraldas and Puerto Quito, he sent the food to the families in those places. He received support from the mayors of both locations for transportation. “When they arrived in Esmeraldas and delivered the food, they filled the truck again, only now with bananas, cassava, cane, papaya, orange, lemon, tangerine, rice and coconut,” adds Wayra.
The ranti ranti is a coincidence of needs and of being reciprocal, as Wayra emphasizes. “Food is shared with those who need it. For that, it is coordinated and it is not a matter of just changing, but that everyone brings what they need, ”she adds. These actions contribute, in some way, to having a varied diet and reducing the levels of chronic child malnutrition, which in Ecuador are alarming. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC), 38 out of every 100 indigenous children under two years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition.
What is the process for the exchange?
The families organize themselves for two exchange fairs a year, one in March, when there are tender products; the other, in June, when corn is harvested and dry grains are exchanged.
In March 2022, in Jatarishun — a community space in La Calera — the exchange fair was held in which women from various communities of Cotacachi participated with their seasonal foods: corn (young corn), young beans, pumpkin, broad beans. , potato, watercress, mellocos, among others.
For this activity there is a process: the organization, harvest, shipment of products to the Coast or cold region as the case may be, reception of the products and exchange.
Before the intercommunity fair takes place, Wayra coordinated with its network from Los Ríos, Montalvo canton. They defined the date for the shipment of products to that area. Later, Wayra informed the families of the date and time of the transport that would transport the products to exchange with the Coast would arrive. The next day, a truck passed by the house of each family that promised to send products; He toured La Calera and then went to other communities, such as Cercado, Imantag, Colimbuela.
In each one, several families waited in the street with their sacks containing what they had harvested: cilantro, cabbage, potatoes, pumpkin; all products to send to the Coast.
That morning, while the truck traveled through La Calera, Wayra and his wife, Rosa Guerrero, were in a ravine collecting watercress and they were hastily placing it on a sheet spread out on the ground, under the shade, to keep it cool.
While collecting the watercress, they commented that with their children they only speak Kichwa and that they maintain their culture. They do this to prevent their native language from being lost, since, according to UNESCO , Kichwa is a language in danger of disappearing. They collected everything in a hurry, because it was a special order. “On the coast there is none of this product. But, in this cold zone of Ecuador, where the water is crystal clear, yes, and it grows fast; in two weeks it can be harvested again,” assured Rosa.
The San Borja ravine is near La Calera, close to the Jatarishun slope. After collecting the watercress, we return to the community and go to the land where they plant corn, beans, Swiss chard, Chinese potatoes, achira, alfalfa and mint. “We plant everything, even purple cabbage.” Guerrero said. From the street he called his wife and the people who were on the ground "ripashunchik" [come on, please]. At that time, they left with what was harvested in the orchard to send it to the coast.
The collection and shipment of the products is carried out in 24 hours. Two days later the same truck returns, but loaded with products from the coast and that day of return the internal fair is held in the community.
Rosario Arias, one of the women who has participated in the exchange fair, stated: “I participated twice, I went to Íntag (the warm area of Imbabura). They approached with cane, with bananas, papaya. We bring grains and pumpkins to exchange. With that we have supported each other. This is our life."
The day the truck returns from the Coast, the women of the communities gather in Jatarishun, where the first thing they do is hold an inter-community fair. They attend with prepared food and their products to offer. What they bring to the exchange is displayed on a tablecloth and each family approaches and brings what they need.
About 30 women with their children, sitting on the grass, begin to exchange what they have brought to the fair: colada morada (drink made from corn flour and blackberries), pumpkin candy, bread, lemons, broad beans, lettuce, kidney tomato, pepper, tree tomato. Some women have been participants in this process since they were children, such as Alexandra Guerrero: “I am from La Calera, we have been doing the ranti ranti for 20 years. Since I was little I have participated, and now that I am married, I am still here. Today I brought lettuce, kidney tomato."
Wary is another young woman who has been participating in this event for more than 20 years. She says that about 39 people come from her community; from the community called Cercado, two groups; from Colimbuela, three. At the beginning, five families participated in this intercommunity activity and later they expanded. Wary says: “There is a person who coordinates in each community and they communicate with each other to collect the products. And I support the registry."
Once the fair is over, the leader, Wayra, addresses all the families that have gathered in Jatarishun, explains what has been collected during the trip and announces that the products will begin to be shared. "We have organized this ranti ranti with all our heart," he emphasizes, while all the products that were transported from the Coast are placed in the patio and this time it is full of bananas, yucca, papaya, orange and sugar cane.
The meaning of this fair and how to distribute the products is based on the principles of reciprocity and solidarity.
Everything is done without financial financing, but with a lot of heart, as Wayra exemplifies: “This fellow needs food. He is sick, he is not getting better yet, and we must feed him until he is well.”
Everything collected on the coast is shared with the people present at the fair; that is, those who sent their products to exchange. There are no claims for the amounts sent or received, what has been collected is simply accepted and enough for everyone.
The community of Minas Chupa, located in Otavalo, also performs the ranti ranti twice a year. The fair takes place in the Saminay educational unit, which has undoubtedly intensified this practice due to the crisis and the social need based on sustainability and solidarity.
Community practices have expanded their distribution network and solidarity market; bartering is a way of life “despite the fact that it has been invisible in the country. The Indigenous peoples have maintained it from generation to generation,” says Murillo. And he adds: “During the pandemic the diet was strengthened and changed, the communities of the lower part (from Lita) came and said: I am going to go with a group to change the products, what do you have in your community? In this way, the exchange was invigorated,” says the agroeconomist.
Conservation of the seeds and the care of the Pachamama
"The communities plant their products without chemicals, use organic agricultural techniques and promote care for the environment," explains agronomist Echeverría. Conservation of local seeds is also practiced to ensure the protection of local plant genetic material, as well as the right to well-being of peoples and their food sovereignty, he says.
Indigenous communities conserve and maintain traditional practices for the sustainable use of biodiversity. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) points out that: “Many indigenous and local communities live in territories of enormous global biological importance. Traditional indigenous territories cover, according to estimates, up to 24% of the global land surface and contain 80% of ecosystems.”
The women who work in agriculture agree that the fertilizer they use for the land is the manure from their animals: guinea pigs and cattle. Likewise, Luis Villagómez, president of the La Calera community mentions: “Here we all sow 100% organically, without chemicals. In this community all the families have a cow, a pig, a sheep; we take advantage of the manure from these animals once it is sown.”
Manure is the organic fertilizer par excellence, due to its high nitrogen content. It has been used since ancient times to take advantage of livestock waste and also to restore the nutrient levels of agricultural soils, as indicated in an article on fertilizers, by the expert in composting and organic fertilizers Germán Tortosa.
In La Calera they plant peas, beans, pumpkin, quinoa, corn and others. Older people grow black, white, yellow corn; conserve and plant in each of the furrows, says Villagómez.
There is a great variety of plants and seeds that are preserved because some of them are at risk of disappearing. But, the women of the communities, especially the older ones, are the ones who conserve and care for the seeds. According to data from the Union of Peasant Organizations of Cotacachi (UNORCAC), the products that are at risk of disappearing are the following:
To avoid the disappearance of the grains included in the previous table, fairs for the exchange of seeds have arisen from the Indigenous communities and organizations of Cotacachi. In this way, it is intended to guarantee the care and conservation of the local seed varieties.
Cristian Echeverría assures that the Municipality has supported these issues and that agriculture is important for the well-being of families: “In 2010, as a Municipality, we began the implementation of a project on the Jatarishun land, in the La Calera community. An investment and adaptation of the space and improvement of the soil was made; cultivation plots were established,” he indicates. He affirms that there is potential in Indigenous peoples to produce food in a sustainable way; application of good agricultural practices, organic production and seed conservation.
For Echeverría, “the provision of seeds and the application of permaculture (permanent agriculture), together with ancestral knowledge and wisdom, are heading towards organic production. The practice of bartering based on cultivated products are interesting processes and show an agricultural economic model oriented to food security,” he assures.
The communities and organizations have been the ones that lead and promote these spaces for the exchange of products and seeds, but, of course, they depend on the participation of each family in that exchange.
In Echeverría's opinion, the Municipality, in some way, has participated in and supported these community actions focused on food, which not only favor Indigenous peoples, but citizens in general. "During the pandemic we were able to strengthen around 240 family gardens, spaces where edible plants that sustain people are grown," he said.
The ranti ranti or reciprocity is a resilient institution with deep historical, cultural and socioeconomic roots that, if promoted, will continue to live and promote the sovereignty and food security of the communities that practice it. So that it does not disappear, there are initiatives that involve youth and children, as is the case of the Saminay Educational Unit, in the Minas Chupa community. “This year, with the aim that the youngest learn, value and begin to make these community practices their own, they participated together with their parents in the exchange held in April. This is how we believe the solidarity and correspondence that underlie the ranti ranti will continue to be strengthened," concludes Jaime Til, a young teacher from the Saminay Educational Unit.
This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Spanish by Ecuador Chequea on 18 August 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Rosario Arias shows the selection of corn which will be turned into flour / Credit: Sinchi Productions.